Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing

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 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.

 

 

 

 

 

His Mission Now

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Then.

His story, he tells me, is not so different from the stories of other veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he can come up with the right words, words that are “profound” enough for the post I’ve asked him to help me write.

He knows that talking can unleash a storm of thoughts, feelings, memories and anxiety that take days to settle down. And the last thing he wants is attention for himself.

He tells me later that he almost didn’t show.

There he is though, a little before noon on a November Friday full of blue skies, rolling surf, and people packing the sidewalks of Ocean Beach. He’s surrounded by shouts, laughter, and the cell-phone chatter of people already giddy about the upcoming weekend. From the outside, he fits right in. Jeans. Black tee-shirt. Sunglasses under the bill of a blue cap with the words “True Religion” sewn in front.

Three and a half hours later, I understand that civilian life often seems more foreign to him than Iraq where he served three tours as a Marine. His mission now is to try to live in this world even though he often wishes he could go back.

“I’d go in a minute,” he says more than once, looking at me from across the table where we are eating lunch, or at least I am. He has barely touched his salad. He still wears the sunglasses and the hat because the light streaming through the windows can trigger migraines that have gotten worse since the blasts that caused his first concussion.

The sense of purpose that got him and his fellow Marines through 18 or 20-hour days on the small base near the Syrian border, is gone. That sense of purpose took root the day he saw the towers fall on television.

“This was our generation’s fight, the way Vietnam was another generation’s fight.”

His life then was just taking shape. He was twenty. He had a steady girlfriend, a job, went to community college. Worked on his Mustang, went to the races at night. As the fallout from 9/11 sank in, he knew he wanted to do his part. In June 2003 he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. By February 2004 he was in Iraq.

That sense of purpose motivated him to want a career with the Marines. It carried him through two more deployments. He carried it with him on 200 patrols, on guard duty, all the jobs he did in addition to his own job as a Supply Administration and Operations Specialist because that is what everyone in his unit did.

“We were all cross trained. We all had to be able to do each other’s job.”

That sense of purpose kept him and his fellow Marines alert during the crushing hours of boredom that come with every deployment. He held onto it after mortars screamed into two contractor trailers at the wall of the base and fell inches from where he’d been standing moments before. The sense of purpose did not desert him after a rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground, or when a female suicide bomber exploded an SUV sending a down a rain of car and body parts onto the base.

He was not alone in that purpose.

“I believe that most of us were there for the right reasons. We believed in America. We were there to help the Iraqis.”

They were also there for each other. He forged bonds with fellow Marines that he will always feel even though some of them — too many of them — are gone. Around his wrist he wears a black metal band engraved with 8 names. Two died in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. The remaining four — and five whose names are not on the bracelet — died after they got home, where they should have been safe.

He learned early on how much could change at home. He’d married his fiancee before deploying. The marriage was over by the time he got back. He found out that his mother, from whom he’d been estranged, had died. When he wasn’t on duty, he drank. He met a woman who cared about him. “She told me to get help. But I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be there for my guys.”

He “doubled down” – more training. Two deployments back to back. In the space between them, his daughter was conceived. He came home to El Cajon from the last deployment in April 2008, four days before her birth.

By then he was a Senior Sergeant stationed in Monterey. As long as he was at work, he could handle things. After hours, the headaches came. The panic attacks. His relationship with his daughter’s mom ended. Then his career with the Marines ended.

“There is no instruction manual for coming home,” he says with a sad smile.

He’s been figuring it out one day at a time. First there was asking for help, something that came hard, something that comes hard for a lot of vets, he says. “We are supposed to tough it out. We are used to looking out for the other guy, not ourselves.”

Even now, he says, “I will get in line behind the amputees and older vets. They deserve every bit of help they can get.”

He struggles with short-term memory loss, the migraines, panic attacks and thoughts that ambush him. If he’s lucky he can sleep four hours a night. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There are days when he wonders if he will ever feel better. There are days when he thinks about friends who haven’t made it this far. A year ago last month one of his closest friends who served with him committed suicide.

“I talked to him two nights before he died,” he says in a low voice. The words come haltingly and behind the sunglasses I see him blinking. “He didn’t say anything. I think he didn’t want to burden me.”

When he struggles the most, he thinks of his daughter. He lives near her now and spends time with her regularly. “She’s my saving grace.”

She’s one of the reasons he takes a full course load at a nearby college and is working to figure out a career path. She’s the reason he continues to get the help he can from the VA. When he talks about his daughter, his voice steadies and I see a father, a student, a caring human being whose shoulders straighten under his his tee shirt when he talks about the mission he has now.

I ask him, “What would you like most from people who have never been to war?”

“Most of us don’t want anything but a little respect because they don’t really know what we’ve done or been through other than the media. That’s not always accurate. Talk to us.”

How, I ask, do we get started?

“Just talk like we are people. Isn’t that how everyone should be? Human beings. We’re just trying to make it like everyone else.”

Here are three sites that are dedicated to helping Veterans to tell their stories. They offer Veterans the chance to tell their stories in ways they may not have thought of. They offer ways for those of us who have never served to listen, learn, and bridge the distance we imagine exists between us and those who have gone to war.

Paving The Road Back

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home

The Veterans Book Project

 

 

Gifts For and From the Dead

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You may see the usual Halloween suspects on Halloween night – zombies, witches, the cast of characters from Game of Thrones. I’m betting you won’t see anyone dressed up as Eric Hill. Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Never mind Peter Matthieson, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel Keyes or Joan Rivers.

Well, maybe Joan Rivers.

No matter, I saw them all today in the Ocean Beach branch of the San Diego Public Library artfully arranged among food, drink, paper flowers, candles, and skulls. They were honored in an imaginative ofrenda put together by one of our librarians, Jan Kregers.  She’d put it together to honor authors who died this year, evoking the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead on Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. On that day, family members — ancestors — are honored, remembered, offered their favorite foods. Each offering has a meaning. For a brief time those who still live and those who are gone reach across the divide for a while in memory, stories, lessons learned, laughter shared.

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Seeing these writers together brought their passing home to me in a way that was both sad and joyful. There was a sense of discovery when I learned that Eric Hill was behind all those “Spot” books. When I looked at the photograph of Daniel Keyes, I remembered the first time I read Flowers for Algernon” years ago and how the story and sadness stayed with me for days and how I went back and read it again. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time as is Nadine Gordimer. There they both were, their faces framed in magenta, yellow, and lime green paper petals. It was kind of magical, really. And joyful because as sad as losing them was, they each left so much behind: memories, stories, lessons, laughter — and we can enjoy all them any day just by picking up one of their books.

If you were to do your own writer’s ofrenda, which authors would be on it?

Here are some more views of the ofrenda assembled by Jan Kreger:

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Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Real Food For Thought

photo 1Max Watman’s new book brought me back to fifth grade when my friend Debbie gave me half her chicken sandwich and I found a vein in it.

“What’s this?” I asked her when I saw the tiny purple tube protruding from the chicken meat nestled between two pieces of her mother’s homemade bread. She shook her head even though she was no longer surprised at all the things a transplant from the suburbs of Connecticut to the White Mountains of New Hampshire didn’t know, and she explained.

It was the first time I connected chicken with a formerly live animal, probably one I’d seen clucking around in her mother’s coop the week before when I helped Debbie collect eggs. Until then, I associated poultry with what came sealed in plastic wrap at the meat counter when my mother took me shopping. I wanted to put the sandwich down but I was hungry and embarrassed, so I pulled out the vein, closed my eyes and chomped. I don’t remember if it tasted much different from a “store-bought” chicken but I finished it.

In the decades since moving from northern New Hampshire, I’ve consumed flocks of chicken but few have had any remaining veins and most have come from places that sickened me when I saw them exposed on movies like Food Inc.

In his book Harvest, Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, Max Watman writes of his efforts to to get as close to his food supply as he can without being a farmer. I started it because it was a gift from The Distiller who is his friend. I finished it because it made me laugh, wince, and begin to see a way to make friends with food again.

I am in the middle of a crisis when it comes to my relationship with food. The erosion of my faith in the food industry has converged with some health issues and lately I analyze benefits versus risk every time I take a bite of something I used to love unreservedly. Tomatoes. Eggplant (nightshade vegetables with inflammatory properties) Fresh peaches (pesticides). Fried peppers and provolone on crusty Italian semolina bread (nightshade, dairy and wheat gluten). Chicken, hamburgers or, increasingly, any meat at all (raised in inhumane conditions and unresolved issues about eating animals when I could thrive on alternatives).

My mental gyrations are those of a privileged person — one who has never known hunger or been deprived of basic sustenance by factors outside my control. I am grateful which gives rise to shame when I get lost in the dilemma of what to eat. This doesn’t make the food go down any easier.

Watman, on the other hand, is passionate about food. He comes from foodie roots; He was hooked on cooking at nine when he roasted a chicken for his ailing parents who were among the first “locavores.” He’s also a writer, which means he is curious and observant, not afraid to dig deep into a subject or look inward if his journey takes him there. He reads. He tries things.

The first half of “Harvest” takes us through his attempts to find “purity and quality, simplicity and grace” the elements that would make the food he serves friends and family better, to live, as he says later on, “as if I were on a farm but without the farm.” We meet Bubbles the steer he purchases and lets fatten on a Virgina farm while he introduces us to his chickens, “the girls,” his cheese-making efforts, the hunting, the fishing, and, of course, the garden.

Nothing quite goes as planned which, combined with the literature he’d absorbed without quite wanting to, brought him to a crisis in his neighborhood pizza joint. He stared at the familiar menu, utterly unable to think of a single thing he wanted to eat there and believed he had failed.

“When eating out, I had drifted into a weird indecisiveness…I was now well versed on the wretched conditions of our fisheries and the wretched conditions of the fish therein. Steak frites made me think of concentrated feedlots, and chicken in any form made me think of the slurry of filthy water through which the carcasses of the recently slaughtered birds are run to “clean” them and “cool” them.”

The crisis nearly becomes a writer’s crisis until Watman’s wife, Rachel, points out that amid the failures were successes, thriving like volunteer tomatoes amid his disappointments. It’s a good thing too because the moment in the pizza joint leads to a mouth-watering description of a pizza that he goes home and makes himself. He made fresh mozzarella, his own pizza dough — slowly fermented to help his wife digest the wheat — and heated sauce he’d made from tomatoes he’d grown.

These moments when Watman discovers what his search, and his book, are really about kept me turning the pages when I should have been writing, packing for a trip, and about a thousand other things that will hammer me at 3 a.m. tomorrow when I can’t sleep.

I’m not sorry though. How can I be sorry when I get much-needed perspective like this:

“It’s important — drastically so in this age — to approach a fish counter with knowledge of which oceanic fruits are better choices than others. It’s also important not to have a small-scale nervous breakdown every time you want to make chowder.”

Or insights not only to the making of bread but the art of looking:

“Once you begin looking at processes, once you begin thinking about ingredients and techniques, once you know how to look at one thing carefully, you are simply better at looking.”

Or the wisdom that foraging can teach (even when foraging is defined as coming upon black (grey at least) market caviar at a deli):

“I had thought of foraging as a specialty, a hobby for the gastro-fringe, but I came to see that to take up foraging in whatever manner, is to learn to travel in your own place.”

What the pursuit of real food comes down to, Watman shows us, is deciding how we will participate in bringing the food we eat to table. His well-told stories of his own experiences — and the meals along the way — show that even those of us who will never be farmers or hunters or fishermen can do more that we think, have fun doing it, and gain a little balance and wisdom in the process.

See how the Camembert cheese worked out at Max Watman’s Tumblr

And let me know if you’ve been reading any books that make you think differently about food!

 

 

 

 

When I Die, I Want to Become a Tomato

IMG_0400When I die, I want to be composted. I’d like to come back as a tomato.

When I tell my family this, they just sniff and look somewhere past my shoulder, as if I’ve just farted.

If they picture it all, they envision a long process, maggots, turning my body with a shovel, watching me swell and liquify and, of course, trying not to breathe because of the smell. None are Buddhists. None have contemplated a corpse. They don’t want to begin with me.

Fine.

Here’s the solution. I first learned of it when I read Mary Roach’s wonderful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  She went to Sweden where she interviewed Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a pioneer in the field of ecologically sound burial. After years of research and trying, she has formed a company that will essentially freeze-dry a corpse, turn it into fine powder, remove the harmful metals, and allow the family to mix it in the ground where a tree can be planted above it. To see how it’s done, click here.

I’ve been following this for years and the process is not available in the US. So, I’m working on a low-carbon-footprint way to have my body sent to Sweden and turned into a tree.

How, you might ask, did I come up with this topic for today’s post?

Well, I sat down to write a post that would, in a sparkly, witty way list the top ten things I do with my old manuscripts, rough drafts, and all the paper I’m left with even in this day of keyboards, hard drives, and clouds. I could only come up with five:

1) Grocery lists (when enough white space remains)
2) Pocket notes (instead of index cards when I’m taking walks and am struck by A THOUGHT that must not get away)
3) More rough drafts (when only one side of a page has been printed and can be shoved back into the printer)
4) Foot rest (turns out a rejected manuscript, placed beneath my writing table, is just the right height for achieving an ergonomically correct position).

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5) Worm food.

You read that last one correctly. In my early days as a composter, I invested in set of stacked boxes and a bag of worms so that our kitchen leavings would have a nice place to go and I would have some nice rich worm-generated compost for my gardening. Such as my gardening is.

One of the ingredients for the worm bedding is paper. I’m embarrassed to say that I still have a lot of paper kicking around. Manuscripts, all or part, lie around like bodies in a morgue. Cold, in pieces sometimes, carved up with red lines or black. Stained with whatever I was eating or drinking as I worked.

When I was into vermicomposting, I used to shred my used-up, marked-up pages and put them in the worm bin. And there they’d be, my words clinging to the scraps of paper that each day disintegrated a little more, turned wet and slimy beneath the bodies of worms or brown every time I added coffee grounds, or banana peels, apple cores, food scraps. It’s humbling to see the products of hours of work consumed by worms and microbes. A character’s eyes, or voice sinking into the earth.

Humbling, but also just right. The tree that became paper, becomes worm food, that feeds a tomato, or a tree again.

A proper burial.

That’s all I’m asking for. No ashes. No chemicals. No maggots. No trauma. Just freeze-dried Betsy and a tree. Or a tomato. I’m not fussy.

If you have an innovative use for your rough drafts, or your body, feel free to share!

If you are wondering about the tomato, these are the fruits of our more recent composting labors. Volunteers. Happy accidents. We throw the chunks of compost that are too big or hard for my pots along the sandy stretch of our alley fence and sometimes, beautiful things happen. All by themselves. Not a bad outcome for any of us, right?

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